The Memo: Five takeaways from Trump in Texas

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE traveled to Texas on Tuesday to view the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.

The trip held political opportunities and risks for the president. What were the main takeaways?

Trump plays to convention

For the most part, Trump stayed within the lines of conventional presidential behavior in the wake of major, traumatic events.


At his first event, a briefing open to the media, Trump paid tribute to those who were working on relief efforts and expressed an uncharacteristic note of circumspection, saying that it was too early to “congratulate” anyone on the response to the disaster, which has generally garnered positive reviews.

He instead argued that he wanted the relief work to be an exemplar for the future.

“We want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it,” he said.

Soon afterward, he addressed a crowd via a microphone and amplifier and asserted to cheers that “Texas can handle anything.”

The broader image, of a president touring an afflicted area and promising concerted action, was a helpful one for Trump, whom polls show to be among the most polarizing presidents of modern times.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a prominent Trump supporter after ending his own White House bid last year, told Fox News that the president had done “a great job so far.”

Concerns that a presidential visit could divert from the recovery work also proved overblown, with Trump staying away from Houston and the areas that had borne the worst brunt from Harvey.

Can Trump be empathetic?

Trump clearly had some good moments, especially when he unfurled a Texas flag to cheers in front of the crowd at his first stop.

The imagery of the trip generally showed a president engaged with the recovery effort. To that extent, the White House had to be satisfied with the results.

Ahead of the trip, former aides to past presidents wondered how Trump would handle moments where he needed to show empathy with people who had lost their homes and belongings.

But there were few one-on-one moments where Trump had a chance to display a direct sympathy for the people who had been affected.

Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, told Fox News, “There was something missing from what President Trump said ... that’s the empathy for the people who suffer.” 

Fleischer added, ”In my opinion, that should’ve been the first thing he should have said, that his heart goes out to those people in Houston who are going through this and that the government is here to help them recover from this.”

“What a turnout!” 

For Trump’s critics, especially on social media, one discordant moment loomed over everything else from the trip.

In Corpus Christi, having emerged from his briefing, Trump took up a position between two fire trucks.

He then proclaimed “What a crowd, what a turnout!” to a crowd that a pool report estimated to be in the hundreds.

The remark struck an odd note amid a once-in-a-generation crisis.

On the one hand, it was relatively typical for Trump, who comments on crowds as a habit and who uses hyperbole on an hourly basis.

To critics, however, it seemed as if the president was adapting the tone of a campaign rally to very different circumstances.

The test is just beginning

The devastation in the Houston area will take years to recover from. 

The most serious damage appears to have emanated not from the winds felt when Harvey made landfall but by the torrential rain that followed in the aftermath. More than 50 inches of rain have fallen in some places, setting a record for total rainfall from one weather system in the mainland United States.

Many obstacles loom in the short, medium and long term, from taking care of the thousands of displaced people to allocating public funds to help in the rebuilding process.

Many expect Congress to pair disaster relief for Texas with short-term legislation to fund the government, as lawmakers must act to prevent a shutdown before Oct. 1. A measure to raise the government’s borrowing limit, which also must be passed in September, could be included as well.

This package is unlikely to include money for Trump’s border wall, which could set up a fight if the president wants one.

The wise move for Trump would likely be to delay the fight for the wall toward the end of the year.

While Trump has so far not suffered any real political damage, a deepening crisis in the weeks ahead could easily overwhelm the more positive early response.

Trump’s second visit could be just as important

The president plans to return to the area on Saturday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters returning to Washington on board Air Force One. 

Sanders suggested Trump would visit areas that had been "hit really hard" and that he would meet evacuees on the second trip.

She also said Saturday's visit could encompass Louisiana, where more flooding is feared as Harvey’s remnants continue to devastate the wider region.

By then, the picture and full extent of the suffering could be more clear.

The trip would be another opportunity for Trump to show that he is engaged in the crisis. And the stakes are likely to be just as high.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.